They’re like nothing he’s ever seen. And Malik’s seen a lot.
They’ve come in force—not little green men or machines from Mars, but small, almost secret. You wouldn’t necessarily even see them until they bit you on the arm.
These extraterrestrial invaders are insects, Malik says, or live inside insects. They inject humankind with their venom, dig under their skin, lay eggs in people’s blood.
And then they have you.
They take you over and control everything you do. Those infected might be your neighbor. Your friend. Your wife. Your son.
Well, the aliens aren’t going to take over Malik’s sons. Not if he has a say.
He rushes home after two years away. In the middle of the night, he surprises his boys—10-year-old Jay, 8-year-old Bobby—and tells them to get in the car, quick as they can. He tells them they’re going on a vacation, a surprise vacation. No bedtimes and all the candy they can eat, he says.
And why aren’t Mom and her boyfriend (Dylan) coming? They’re on vacation, too, Malik tells them. That’s why they couldn’t say goodbye.
Malik can’t tell his sons the truth. Not yet. He can’t tell them that Mom and Dylan are infected, or that he locked them in the garage.
But the danger’s still everywhere. Insects float in the air like pollen, biting and stinging and crawling. And the people—you never know who might be a slave of these interstellar invaders. Malik must be vigilant. He tells his boys to not speak with anybody, or to draw attention to themselves at all.
But still, sometimes, nature calls.
In the black of the early morning, Bobby needs to go to the bathroom. So Malik pulls over. But a sheriff soon pulls over, too. He gets out of the car, hand on gun, and ask where Malik’s going.
“Road trip with my boys,” Malik says.
“At 3 a.m.?” the sheriff asks.
Malik tells him that he only has custody for the weekend. He’s just trying to spend as much time as he can with them.
But the sheriff isn’t buying it. He pulls his gun, frisks Malik and finds that he’s carrying a pistol himself.
“Sir,” the sheriff asks. “Do you have a permit for this firearm?”
Malik knows this isn’t going to end well. The sheriff’s clearly been taken over. And as long as Malik’s alive, there’s no force on Earth that’ll take his boys away from him. And if he must, he’ll kill anyone who tries.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
When Malik says that he wants to keep his boys safe, he means it. He loves his kids. And his kids love him, too. The relationship between Malik and Jay is particularly poignant: While they certainly have moments of friction, each does what he can to save the other, including putting his own life at risk. “Families take care of each other,” Jay tells Malik.
But while Malik believes he’s saving his boys, the law takes a different view. Indeed, the act amounts to kidnapping, and FBI experts believe that the ex-Marine/former convict checks all the boxes needed to be labeled a “family annihilator.” Shepherd West, the agent in charge of tracking down Malik, wants to stop him before Malik kills his boys and turns the gun on himself.
But Hattie, Malik’s parole officer, has more faith in Malik than that. “I have to look each and every one [of her clients] in the eye,” she tells an FBI agent. “See if I can find good in them. Because that’s what I do. That’s my job.” Even when Shepherd feels like he has Malik’s character nailed down, Hattie keeps digging, uncovering new information that might change minds if given the chance.
A kindly store owner tries to help Jay.
Malik has some tattoos in Arabic writing that might be Islamic sayings or verses. And while those tattoos aren’t visible most of the time, the color of his skin causes some of the folks who he crosses paths with to make assumptions about his allegiances. When he’s confronted by a man holding a shotgun, Malik tries to explain he served in the military.
“Whose side were you on?” The man holding the shotgun asks.
“The side that gave me a Bronze Star,” Malik tells him.
Malik squashes a bug with a Bible. Someone talks about the “demons” inside. We see a cross hanging on someone’s wall.
Malik is seen without a shirt a couple of times. He asks Jay (using crude language) whether he’s getting any pubic hair. Malik tells his son that all the girls will soon be flocking to him.
The parasites that Malik sees can be pretty grotesque. One man is shown with critters crawling all over his open mouth. Another man has what look to be worms moving underneath, but near the surface, of the skin: The person so infected screams and scratches, drawing blood at several points.
But some of the movie’s most ooky scenes look like they could’ve come from a microscopic documentary: A praying mantis eats the head off a grasshopper. A mosquito injects its probiscis into someone’s skin, releasing another, even tinier creature into the blood stream. (The creature then moves to another section of the body and bursts open; and what look like tiny worms are released from the carcass.)
Malik and the sheriff (mentioned in the introduction) do fight: The sheriff fires his gun several times as Malik wrestles him for it, and Malik winds up punching the guy repeatedly, knocking him out. Malik tangles with another man, too. The former suffers a bloody (but not life-threatening) shotgun wound before the latter is knocked out with a floor lamp. Later, Malik picks pellets out of the bloody wound with a knife, wincing as he does so.
A gunfight involves a couple of automatic weapons. Someone is hit by a car, sending him smashing painfully to the pavement. (We hear him scream in pain.) Another man gets shot in the chest. (He’s protected by an armored vest, but the bullet still knocks him flat.) A child hits his head painfully on some asphalt.
We hear about why Malik was sent to prison: He attacked his commanding officer, breaking the man’s jaw in five different places. We also hear about a grisly mission Malik was on that deeply impacted him.
News reports talk about violent chaos in the streets, with a reporter describing it as almost a “disease.” Bugs bite and are in turn slapped and killed. “I’m getting eaten alive today,” one person says. We see someone play a violent video game in which a target has its head blown off in a spatter of pixelated blood.
More than 15 f-words and five s-words, some of the latter uttered by a pair of young kids. Also spoken: “a–,” “d–n” and “h—.” We also hear about five misuses of God’s name (two of those with the word “d–n”) and three abuses of Jesus’ name.
Malik tells Jay about a time when he was courting Jay’s mother, and the two went out dancing. He says he had about a dozen whiskeys in him when he tried to do a backflip and accidentally kicked her.
A scene takes place in a bar, where two people drink. Hattie says that most of her parole cases are “drug and thug.”
We see Malik vomit as he’s driving (and he opens the car door to do so). Jay and Bobby’s mother runs from a family dinner to vomit: We hear her retching off camera. Bobby and Malik urinate along the side of a road. We hear that Bobby sometimes passes gas in his sleep.
Malik does a whole bunch of things that would not be considered a part of good parenting. He promises that on this road trip, neither of them will have a bedtime and can eat all the sugar they want. When Bobby tells him that his mom doesn’t let him have sugar because it makes him hyper, Malik says that he wants Bobby to be hyper—the mission demands it—and pours more maple syrup on Bobby’s pancakes. He teaches Jay how to drive, and Jay (who, you’ll remember, is 10 years old) gets behind the wheel more than a preteen strictly should. He breaks into houses, steals cars and gets pretty angry with his kids, too.
And then, of course, you’ve got Malik’s lies. He’s lied to his kids for a while now, telling them that he was on a secret mission when in reality he was in prison. He tells them he’s taking them on vacation, when in truth it’s anything but. Jay eventually confronts him over these and other lies, but Jay also lies to protect his father. (When he goes to buy bandages and antiseptic for a wound his father suffered, for instance, he tells the shopkeeper that his dad was bitten by a dog.)
Jay also acts pretty disrespectfully to his would-be stepfather, Dylan. When Dylan compliments Jay on a picture he drew—suggesting they get it framed—Jay tears the picture out of his notebook, crumples it up dramatically and says, “Frame it now.” (Dylan sends him to his room.)
Is Encounter a sci-fi thriller, as some have said? Is it a psychological drama, as others have?
Let’s sidestep all that and call it, instead, a family story—one about a dad who wants to protect his two kids but, because of circumstances beyond his control, doesn’t quite know how. Indeed, he often imperils them instead.
Malik, played by Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed, serves as both one of the movie’s heroes and villains. Jay, his 10-year-old-son, becomes both a victim and protector. And the family dynamics we see in play here, despite the plot’s twists and the movie’s excesses, resonate.
Encounter does have its excesses. Still, even though it’s rated R for both violence and language, this movie could’ve been worse, content-wise.
But while the filmmakers theoretically could’ve easily throttled back the language and toned down this flick’s violence to make it more palatable for a younger audience, that still wouldn’t have addressed the story’s disturbing issue. It packs its biggest wallop from the fact that the father at its heart is so inherently unreliable. His love and his skill put his kids at times in more peril, not less—and that’s a theme best reserved for adults.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.